Second Prague Spring and hope for the future

In the summer of 1993, I had one of those experiences that stay with me for the rest of my life.

I spent 10 weeks in Europe, beginning with a six-week law-school summer session at Charles University in Prague.

Prague was, as much as any place, the cradle of culture in central Europe, and it was sometimes the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Its ancient center was architecturally and many other ways romantic and gorgeous. Because it was subject only to rather minor bombing, Prague’s charm and beauty were nearly unscathed by World War II.

But 45 years of socialist “compassion” under a Soviet Union puppet regime had turned everything soot gray and ugly before eastern and central Europe was liberated in 1989.

When I arrived, you could walk down the winding cobblestone streets of the Old Town near its famous castle amid five-story ancient residential buildings standing shoulder-to-shoulder against narrow sidewalks on both sides. Buildings that had once been vibrant with color, exquisite in their features and soaring to the sky were now soot-gray dingy, decaying and seemingly drooping in shame.

Then, out of nowhere, came one that was a brilliant pastel lime-green, fully restored and bursting with light and life. Then soot-gray, soot-gray and suddenly another one, bright pink, restored to its original glory. Soot-gray, soot-gray, soot-gray. And another beauty reclaimed in rich mustard yellow.

And then, across the street, amid more weeping soot-gray ghosts, a sight that explained everything: One of the old wrecks with its entire face covered with … scaffolding. The secret of a second Prague Spring was revealed as people liberated from the yoke of coercive collectivism and soaring in restored liberty were scrubbing away the toxic dirt of statist oppression, rebuilding the decorative art that was their heritage, and baptizing it all with lovely color.

It was especially moving because in 1968 I had been an ardent fan of the (first) Prague Spring, led by a Czechoslovakian freedom movement that was brutally crushed in the city’s main square by Soviet tank squads.

This month we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the stunning 1989 collapse of the Soviet and Eastern Block, highlighted by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Prague and eastern and central Europe.

Growing up in the 1950s with basement bomb shelters, air-raid sirens and duck-and-cover drills in response to threats from that truly Evil Empire created even in children an abiding sense of unease — an understanding that serious threats were afoot in the world. As the Cold War became normalcy, there was vague despair for three more decades at a world locked in continuing tension due to the menace we thought was permanent because its evil controlled the world’s second most powerful nation and others. With all that exacerbated by the rise of Red China, it seemed like a nightmare that would never end.

Then, of a sudden, there was light in the world as the Evil Empire simply crumbled, being unable to keep up with the West’s prosperity brought by the renewed commitment to freedom of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and others. The unimaginable happened: The bad guys simply folded and communism collapsed due to its own “internal contradictions”.

Today, we face domestic challenges from progressivism, socialism’s close cousin. We face serious international challenges from terrorism, much of it ideological or religion-based and some of it just insane. I don’t minimize these challenges. However, whenever I feel daunted by them, I remember the second Prague Spring and the collapse of something even bigger and worse that we thought would never end, and I’m hopeful.

Ron Knecht is an economist, law-school graduate, higher education regent and Nevada controller-elect.


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